As Myanmar marked Independence Day on January 4 with formal ceremonies, a national holiday and street games, a very different anniversary passed almost without mention in the country’s west.
Exactly a year earlier, Arakan Army soldiers had staged coordinated attacks on four police stations in northern Rakhine State, killing 13 officers. The attacks have precipitated bloody clashes, mass displacement and human rights violations in Rakhine and neighbouring Chin State.
More than 100 civilians have been killed and many more injured as a result of small arms fire, artillery barrages and landmines. The Rakhine Ethnics Committee, a local civil society group, estimates that around 100,000 people have been displaced. Official figures are less than half that, but even if the true figure is somewhere in the middle, it represents a significant and tragic toll.
Rakhine was already reeling from the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army attacks in 2016-17 and the military’s subsequent crackdowns that sent almost 750,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. But the conflict with the Arakan Army has plunged the state into new depths of violence and chaos.
The outlook is bleak. Despite early predictions that the Arakan Army would be unable to sustain its operations, it has proven remarkably resilient and the fighting continues to spread. Most recently, on Christmas Day, clashes were reported in Ann Township, a Tatmadaw stronghold and home of its Western Command. The AA appears to have no shortage of recruits, and continues to find ways to arm and supply its forces.
Its success is built largely on strong popular support. The government and military have sought to undermine this through a range of harsh measures, including detaining those suspected of links to the AA, cutting supplies to camps for the internally displaced, shutting down mobile internet access and restricting the activities of civil society groups. Predictably, these seem to have had the opposite effect, by further antagonising civilians.
In recent months, Myanmar’s security forces have stepped up arrests of civilians, including direct relatives of the AA leadership. The armed group has responded in kind, detaining soldiers, civil servants and civilians, some of whom were later released.
Though the conflict continues to escalate, outside Myanmar, the fighting in Rakhine and Chin and the suffering of civilians in these states have not received the attention they merit. The focus remains almost exclusively on the Rohingya crisis, but the two are not distinct. While conflict continues between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw, prospects for repatriation of refugees will remain slim. ARSA and the AA, and the people they claim to represent, share many of the same grievances against Nay Pyi Taw.
Despite inflicting some heavy losses on the AA, the Tatmadaw seems unable to defeat it on the battlefield, or to make the concessions that could bring about a negotiated solution.
Not that you would know it, listening to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. Speaking at a ceremony on January 4, Myanmar’s commander-in-chief claimed the failure to end conflict in Myanmar was because of some ethnic armed group leaders “prioritising selfishness”, having a “narrow-minded” approach and lacking the “will to actually restore peace”. “That is why problems are being unavoidably solved through military way[s],” he said.
This approach will only spell further disaster. Both sides need to step back from the precipice.
As a first step, the government and Tatmadaw should halt the harsh measures taken against civilians, and the AA should refrain from further abductions and release those in its custody. Both sides should engage in genuine negotiations towards ending the conflict, avoid making unrealistic demands and refrain from further attacks.
The government and military need to recognise that the AA offensive of January 2019 did not emerge from within a vacuum – it was the result of both longstanding grievances and recent sparks, particularly the arrest and later sentencing of Dr Aye Maung, the state’s leading politician. For many in Rakhine, his imprisonment killed whatever remaining hope they had in electoral politics, after years of disappointments.
While the general election due this year could be a flashpoint, it is also an opportunity – a chance to restore confidence in the power of votes and parliamentary representation as the means of settling disputes. Peaceful elections and a regional administration that reflects the will of the people of Rakhine State, rather than the party of the president in Nay Pyi Taw, will go a long way towards restoring peace.